By November 1976, Rene Levesque was already a mythic figure in Quebec. A full-blown star for twenty years, first as a television host and then as the most outspoken member of the Liberal cabinet of Jean Lesage from 1960 to 1966, he projected a personality that seemed transparently honest, impulsive, mischievous, modest, outspoken, and provocative. His foibles – a chain-smoking sloppy dresser, he was a notorious night owl, working and then relaxing until the early hours – were as endearing as his strengths.
A study of Levesque is, in large part, a study of language, gesture, and culture – for, in a homogeneous society with a strong oral tradition, Levesque was a cultural force as much as a politician. An artist. A performer. A star.
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In 1964, the novelist and filmmaker Jacques Godbout called Levesque “Quebec’s first lay teacher”, and compared him to Quebec’s symbolic hero, Maurice Richard. It was a telling comparison, for Maurice Richard, the dark, explosive hockey legend with the smouldering eyes, is a symbol of both pride and humiliation, remembered for his scoring triumphs, his martyred rage, and his bitterness against the NHL and Les Canadiens management. (Richard is the only hockey player whose suspension provoked a nationalist riot.)
Levesque’s career had been a torrent of words: a seemingly unending exhortation to Quebecers, emerging in a stream of prose that has been described as “an original mixture of joual, popular phrases, freshly coined words, American or English expressions that have been more or less gallicized, all expressed in long sentences plaited with an incredible association of ideas.”
At his best, Levesque personified simplicity and action: in place of the vanity and rhetoric of traditional politics in Quebec, he brought a new energy and openness. He spoke in provocative, firecracker phrases, constantly surprising, exciting, challenging his audiences. As a public figure, he seemed rumpled, casual, informal, and accessible. Levesque was a constant smoker; cigarettes seemed part of his restlessness, together with his squint, his twitches, his shrugs; they filled his spaces, just as the rhythms of the smoke seemed to shape his looping sentence structure.
Politically, Levesque would adopt labels and self-definitions – and then thrust them away impatiently. Ultimately, he lived his ideological commitment in an intensely personal way, forging his political decisions out of events rather than ideas. Long after he might have been isolated by his own celebrity, he remained intellectually curious, questioning ordinary people he met with a seductive intensity, reading widely and voraciously, bolting from people or ideas that might limit him.
But there is another side to Rene Levesque. He is a restless, solitary man. Distrustful of many of the people around him, distant, suspicious, stubborn, he remembers slights, embarrassments, and grudges with slit-eyed bitterness years after everyone else has forgotten them. And despite his apparent casualness, he calls very few people “tu”; people who have worked with him for years call him “vous” and “Monsieur Levesque”.
Sometimes it seems as if there are two Rene Levesques: one modest, witty, curious, tolerant and open, widely read and taking a spontaneous pleasure in new people and new ideas; the other distant, cool, suspicious, and narrow, with a vindictive streak. He seems to oscillate between humility and humiliation, pride and resentment, generosity and vengefulness.
Many people have remarked on his paradoxical impulses. Camille Laurin, the psychiatrist who was to become an important member of his cabinet, once described them vividly. It is a description that has remained valid over the years.
“Ever since I began working with him, Rene Levesque seems to me to have understood and empathized with the contradictions facing every Quebecois which compel him to strive for liberation and at the same time prevent him from achieving it. This is why he himself oscillates between the light and the dark, impatience and confidence, tenderness and seventy, scolding and the call to self-betterment, whenever he thinks to himself or talks to others.
This is why he plumbs his own depths when in need of counsel during times of crisis. This is why he is a symbol of contradiction in everyone’s eyes, and an object of recognition, hatred, and love.”
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